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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Green around the gills? Political party seeks to roll copyright back by three centuries

As the UK's General Election draws closer, it has to be conceded that intellectual property has again largely avoided the limelight in the endless arguments between the contending political parties and their candidates as to what's best for the economy, the country, mankind and civilisation as a whole.  However, some eyebrows have been raised at the position taken by one of the political parties -- the Green Party -- with regard to copyright. In this guest blogpost, Kevin Winters explains:

As the IPKat has regularly pointed out, intellectual property doesn’t often feature prominently in the minds of politicians, at least not in the run-up to a General Election.  However the UK Green Party has decided to change this, by taking a very clear position in its 2015 manifesto on the state of UK copyright law.  Under the heading of ‘Information and Digital Rights’, the Green Party states that, if elected to form a government:
“We would…Make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible…”
The Party went on to give more detail on this by stating in policy documentation that this would involve introducing
“... generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”.
Despite some initial confusion regarding when the duration of copyright protection would begin, the Green Party did announce that protection would last for 14 years after death (and that they were reviewing their copyright policy).  This pledge to reduce copyright protection from 70 years to 14 years after death has been met with criticism from many writers and artists.   
Katfriend and IP specialist Graeme Fearon had this to say on the decision by the Green Party to pursue this policy:
“Given that the Greens’ sole MP in the last UK parliament represented Brighton -- a town full of authors, artists and creatives of all description who rely heavily on copyright to earn a crust -- this is quite a brave stance.  Caroline Lucas (the MP in question, currently a candidate for re-election) has explained that this is “just a proposal [and so] isn't in our general election manifesto.  It is not something we want to introduce as a priority in the next 5 years.”  However, the manifesto clearly proposes to amend copyright to make it “fairer, more flexible and shorter. To bring the law up to date to better reflect the demands of the digital age.””
This pledge by the Green Party does go against the grain.  History has seen copyright protection for authors' works gradually extended: the Statute of Anne (1709 or 1710, depending on whichever way you look at it) did provide for a 14 year protection, which grew and grew till it reached the Berne Convention (1886) norm of life plus 50 years.  Today the vast majority of copyright legislation provides for an extended period of protection for newly created copyright works: life plus 70 years under both the US Copyright Act (1976) and the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).  
Looking at the duration of protection currently afforded under UK copyright law, Graeme adds:
“It hardly needs saying that this can be a very long time – the work of a long-lived child prodigy could conceivably be protected for 150 years.  The rationale for this has always been to offer authors and artists a fair chance to derive a proper income from their work during their lifetime, and to be able to bequeath this value to their estates like any other property.  But why should the children (or even grandchildren) of an author be able to enjoy the fruits of their ancestor’s hard work and ingenuity in a way that isn't offered to the descendants of, say, inventors or plant breeders?” 
There is an added dimension to the Green Party’s policy regarding the reform of copyright law which its manifesto fails to address.  As the UK is part of the EU, any change in the law of copyright would have to be compliant with European legislation (the current regime being the result of the Copyright Term Directive).  Could it be that the party's support for an in-out referendum on EU membership has negated any need for discussion on this point? 
Patiently awaiting that first royalty statement ...
Given the response from authors and creatives towards the Green Part and their proposed 14 year copyright protection, it is perhaps wise for some further thought to be given to it -- some authors have been reported to have had to wait between 12 and 13 years before they enjoyed any royalty payments from copyright protection.  Further, it may also be wise for a wider audience to be consulted on this particular policy: while a 14 year copyright is recommended by academic research, there has been no reported input from other stakeholders and interested parties.    
For any IP law enthusiast it is always pleasing to see it figure in political party manifestos.  However, the Green Party appears to be almost alone in its desire to alter the current framework for copyright protection (though the Pirate Party would reduce the term still further, to 10 years).  It will be interesting to see whether the views expressed by authors and writers have any bearing on the Green Party’s position on reforming copyright in the UK.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Misleading title & 'cliche' of 14 year copyright.

The proposal is not for 14 years copyright but for a much more timid life plus 14 years. Clearly this does not role back copyright three centuries!

Anonymous said...

The Green Party has plainly been trying to row back on this policy as hard as it possibly can -- viz the rather unconvincing attempts to re-present the objective as "14 years after death" rather than the 14 years tout court as expressed in the black-and-white of the document.

However, rather more convincing are some of the other points made by Tom Chance, the party's former intellectual property spokesman, in a long blog-post on the 24th just after this first blew up.

In particular he underlines that the Greens are well aware of the international treaties involved -- including the Copyright Term directive and article 7 of Berne.

The call for radical copyright term reform arose as part of the party's formal vision-setting process as a long-term aspiration, rather than something it would be concretely pressing to deliver in the next Parliament.

He's also "certain" that proposals for change will now be brought to the Green party conference in September -- though it is up to members to get involved to determine what it will be. But the formal policy won't/can't be changed before then -- he argues that it's a strength that MPs can't simply declare policy inoperative on the hoof whenever convenient (unlike other parties); policy created by the membership can only be changed by the membership, and the Greens take the policy decisions of their members seriously.

The storm has set off quite a debate, with some (including for example this musician and composer) holding to the demand for much shorter terms; others calling for perpetual copyright (eg some of the posters on this facebook group), others again supporting views similar to this from kat-friend Technollama, calling for shorter fixed default copyrights, but with the possibility of registration and renewal.

Most relevant as an arena for future policy formation will be the discussions in this Policy Forum on the members-only part of the party website (party membership required). Debate there has been vigorous, by all accounts!

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, your link to "academic research" doesn't work (it seems to point to a file on your local C: drive).

Anonymous said...

Life plus 14 years would not only depend on leaving the EU, it would also require that the UK leave the Berne Convention.

This would not only reduce authors' and artists' protection in the UK. Potentially they would have no copyright protection whatsoever in many other countries around the world.

For a major export industry, overseas royalties would not merely be curtailed 14 years after the author's death, they would never start in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Shorter copyrights, please.

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